As the pace of DNA exonerations has grown across the country in recent years, wrongful convictions have revealed disturbing fissures and trends in our criminal justice system. Together, these cases show us how the criminal justice system is broken – and how urgently it needs to be fixed.
We should learn from the system’s failures. In each case where DNA has proven innocence beyond doubt, an overlapping array of contributing factors has emerged – from mistakes to misconduct to factors of race and class.
Those exonerated by DNA testing aren’t the only people who have been wrongfully convicted in recent decades. For every case that involves DNA, there are hundreds that do not.
Only a fraction of criminal cases involve biological evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing, and even when such evidence exists, it is often lost or destroyed after a conviction. Since they don’t have access to a definitive test like DNA, many wrongfully convicted people have a slim chance of ever proving their innocence.
These factors are not the only causes of wrongful conviction. Each case is unique and many include a combination of the above issues. Review our case profiles to learn how the common causes of wrongful convictions have affected real cases and how these injustices could have been prevented.
Contributing causes confirmed through Innocence Project research. Actual numbers may be higher, and other contributing factors to wrongful convictions include government misconduct and bad lawyering.
Police and Prosecutorial Misconduct
While most prosecutors and law enforcement officials are honest and have the best intentions to protect society, the pressure to secure a conviction at times may lead police and prosecutors to act in an inappropriate, unfair, or unlawful manner. This government misconduct can include withholding or fabricating evidence, coercive interrogations by investigators, or suggestive methods used by police to obtain an identification. While police and prosecutorial misconduct is more likely in high profile cases with a great amount of press coverage, because law enforcement feels pressure to obtain a suspect.
In the case of Kenneth Waters, for example, the Ayer police both fabricated and withheld critical evidence and threatened witnesses to implicate Kenny, leading to his wrongful conviction. DNA tests proved Kenny’s innocence, and he was exonerated in 2001 by his sister, Betty Anne Waters, with help from the Innocence Project.